Wednesday, December 14, 2011


On a cross-country road trip several years ago, I took a 400-mile detour to a museum in Shelburne, Vermont.

I wanted to see an exhibit of the work of an African-American woman named Effie Mae Howard (1936-2006): a recluse who’d had a mental breakdown, begun making quilts, shown her work under the pseudonym Rosie Lee Tompkins, and recently died.

“The reason [the work] makes me feel so good is that I put Christ in the center of it,” Tompkins had said and, from the photos, her quilts—abstract, off-kilter, geometric, saturated with color—were stunning and original pieces of art. I’d first read of Tompkins earlier in the year, and upon learning that the museum was mounting an exhibit, I'd determined, come hell or high water, to make time to see it.

Why did it seem so important to see the work of a person who, according to one review, had “suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s, and thereafter was plagued by voices in her head and the sense that she was being watched”?

First, because by all accounts Tompkins’ quilts were sublime. But also because that we bend over our work even when we’re in pain matters. That we’re faithful to the call of our hearts even though nobody notices or cares, and we’re not making any money, and the suffering continues, matters.

People consider it a badge of honor to describe themselves as countercultural—which usually means they’re listening to Eckhart Tolle as they cut you off in their SUV—but I’ll tell you what’s countercultural. Anonymity is countercultural (Tompkins had not allowed herself to be photographed, tape-recorded, or quoted). Losing your mind and taking up quilt-making is countercultural. Anything that’s done for the glory of God, not ourselves, is countercultural.

So I would take my little stand. I would drive 200 miles each way to honor the fact that Rosie Lee Tompkins had anonymously threaded her needle, and taken thousands of tiny stitches, and made her explosive, crazy, glorious quilts.

The drive was destined to take place during a torrential, torrential downpour, past pizza shops and ice cream stands and white-steepled churches; past the Kokopelli Inn and Pelkey’s Blueberries and a sign saying “Free Stuff.” The rain slashed down so hard, and I was so exhausted, that I almost turned around. But I kept thinking of Rosie Lee Tompkins, who, from odds and ends of fabric, buttons, rickrack, sequins, lace, had fashioned a whole strange, mystical existence.

When I finally arrived, The Shelburne transpired to be situated on 45 acres of grounds and feature, among other things, a Blacksmith Shop, a weaving cottage, the Vermont Settlers House-Cabin; a textile section, a Shaker exhibit, American and Impressionist Paintings, collections of dollhouses, glassware and ceramics. I bypassed all that, walked through what seemed like miles of nasturtiums, roses, and sere cornstalks, and went straight to “Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins.”

I saw at once that the exhibit was worth the long drive. The whole trip would have been worthwhile for a single quilt: “Hit and Miss Strip,” a 73” by 112” work consisting of irregularly-sized pieces of black and blood-red velvet—squares, triangles—sewn together in jagged, improvisational blocks and rows. The quilt gave the effect of a cross without actually depicting a cross; an effect of controlled chaos, of a pattern, but one that shifted and morphed. Nothing lined up but the pieces all went together. Barely-contained…Sorrow? Love? Grief? Erotic energy. I didn’t know, but she “got” it. I’d felt the same way when I first heard Stan Getz’s “People Time.” Richness, complexity, depth, and a ton of pain.

In addition to quilts, the exhibit included, among other items, table runners, chair cushions, clothing, and a pillow cover of a stained-glass window featuring a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus wearing a rosette-studded pink robe. Tompkins had eventually covered just about everything in her house with patchwork, often embroidering on her name, her birthday—9-6-36—and various Bible verses.

Her pieces had been hailed by art critics, featured in museums nationwide, described as the best “painting” in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, but she had never achieved the tranquility she sought. She came to believe that her phone was tapped. She felt that people were watching and listening, as if she lived in “a glass house.” She draped one whole wall of her bedroom with appliquéd crosses, hoping to ward off the voices, but to no avail. In spite of her torment, she had continued, up till the time of her death, to sew.

“I think it’s because I love them so much,” Tompkins speculated, “that God let me see all these different colors.”

this quilt is by Lola Ruiz (,
inspired by Rosie Lee Tompkins


  1. I don't know if we will ever know why a tortured life brings about such creative genius; one of those mysteries of life that is terrible and wonderful at the same time.

  2. What divine madness!

    Reminds me of Seraphine Louis the French painter who worked with the same manic dedication.

  3. Wonderful observations. I liked to it on Facebook. How amazing it is that God can bring good out of bad. No one would want to go mad that way, but I think a big part of Catholicism is realizing that you don't always get cured when you pray for a cure, that there can still still beauty and love in the midst of madness and brokenness. Sometimes we bring bad things on ourselves, sometimes we simply suffer from them. But God is still there.

  4. Such energy in those images...

  5. Another window into beauty, of which I was unaware. Thx so much, Heather.

  6. This post is very pro life. I know, I'm messing about but I'm trying to say that here is a post about a life, a single life lived as full as it could be lived. A damaged and peculiar life, a lived life. A life lived hidden off road but in the centre of the eye of God.

    I love the, probably unintentional, juxtaposition of this post with your previous post Heather and wonder, how many 'pro lifers' will fly here to say, thank you, thank you for writing a post that is so pro (a) life?


    These words "“The reason [the work] makes me feel so good is that I put Christ in the center of it,” Tompkins [said]" remind me of the words I saw long before I became a Catholic Christian but that drew me by their strength and on reflection prove to hold a very Catholic sense of what it is to be truly spiritual:

    "Without these [artisans, craftsmen...] a city is not built. And they shall not dwell, nor walk about therein, and they shall not go up into the assembly. Upon the judges' seat they shall not sit, and the ordinance of judgment they shall not understand, neither shall they declare discipline and judgment, and they shall not be found where parables are spoken: But they shall strengthen the state of the world, and their prayer shall be in the work of their craft, applying their soul, and searching in the law of the most High." Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38: 36-39 in this case from the old Douay-Rheims translation which I do not read all the time but does render these verses so poetically.

  7. Oh thanks, everybody, I'm so glad you responded to Rosie Lee Tompkins and her quilts as I did. This is wonderful to know of Seraphine Louis, birdonaroof--the combination of terror and wonder in which genius consists I find endlessly compelling. That is JUST the rub of Catholicism/Christ/reality, as you say Gail: we are healed, but not necessarily in the way we pray to be healed. The brokenness and madness often continue. I just re-read Maisie Ward's biog. of Caryll Houselander, That Divine Eccentric. In it is a passage about Caryll visiting some mental institution where Mass was held in a little chapel and she was bowled over at the fervent, heartfelt prayers of the psych patients for other sick people, others who were suffering..."And many who are last shall be first" when he comes into his glory!...

    Owen, thanks for seeing that Rosie Lee and her spirit are FOR life, toward life, in the very best sense. That spirit is what I have hoped from the beginning would infuse my blog...

    Jason, Barb, Erin--Advent greetings! And no, Erin, we will NOT be neurasthenic!...

  8. Heather,
    Add me to the list - I loved the photos and reflection and your dedication to being witness to her glory (the quilts) and her suffering by the act of braving an ugly trip to get there. It did hit me with the juxtaposition of your previous post- and also resonated with me- what it is to be "FOR life". How amazing!

    And then this morning, the following was in my emailbox. It brings everything together for me, especially in light of my own son's enthusiasm for praying for people at the drop of hat, and for no *apparent* reason other than he is thinking about them. He says, "pray Uncle Mark"- blesses himself, looks at you, as you are expected to join in, and then declares "Pray Uncle Mark" and blesses himself again. Sometimes people we haven't seen for months are prayed for, which prompts the call to tell them that (my son's name is Peter, too!) Pete prayed for them today. My Pete can barely get out a coherent sentence, but there is NO mistaking his praying. My Pete has Down syndrome too, but also autism and mood disorder, so he's had some behaviors that have been tough to deal with from time to time. When things get tough for him, he lashes out, and there can be the ongoing difficulty in trying to figure out what happened that caused such an outrageous response?
    But, every morning, Pete points out "Jesus on the cross!" He NEVER ever forgets to say grace. And he isn't ashamed to be very open about Jesus!

    "Simple Prayer

    Many people in L'Arche are close to God, and yet they are so little and poor. They have known rejection and have suffered a great deal. I am always moved as I hear them speak of God. When somebody asked one of our men, Peter, if he liked to pray, he said that he did. So the person continued and asked him what he did when he prayed. He replied: “I listen.” Then the person asked what God says to him. Peter, a man with Down`s Syndrome, looked up and said: “He just says, 'You are my beloved son.'

    - Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, p.23"

  9. Wow, Heather and the artist quilts and positioned as a for-life lived silently and alone...Owen's Sirach and Mary Beth's son. What a moving cluster of thoughts and colors, you all! I just finished a book by the Vatican's exorcist (Gabriele Amorth) and wonder if Rosie could have benefitted from prayers of deliverance. On the other hand, she handled the afflictions (whatever their source) with such thick soul that she certainly 'strengthened the state of the world'.

  10. Oh Mary Beth...I read your comment the other day, burst into tears, and immediately went to my bed (where I SO belonged), laid (lay?)down, and stayed for several hours..."Pray Uncle Mark"...Pray all of us. Pray your beloved Peter...

    Also, I'm thinking, is Peter not all of us writ large? Capable of such purity of heart and also prone to such seemingly inexplicable outbursts. So endearing; so maddening. So precious, so unendingly difficult. So transparent, so impossible to fully fathom...

    And is this not also, it suddenly occurs to me, exactly how Jesus must have seemed to Mary?...

    Thank you, all of you, for continually breaking open my heart...and love to you, Mary Beth, and to Peter...

  11. There's something riveting (or mesmerizing) about the red and black quilt at the top. Wow!
    -Michael Demers

  12. Hi, this is Lola Ruiz from
    I made the third quilt!! not Rosie Lee...and i did it inspired by her work
    There must have been a confusion somewhere in google search!!
    Anyway I love R. Lee's quilts too and have a page only for her in my blog.
    I'm glad that so many people love her work because to me she is the best.

  13. Oh wow, so sorry, Lola--yes, I got the pix from google search. I'll include the proper attribution--your quilt is beautiful! Glad to meet another Rosie Lee Tompkins fan...


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